The Christian songwriting partnership of MARK PENNELLS and ZARC PORTER chronicled through 20 of their recordings
Of all the behind-the-scenes workers in the busy world of UK Christian music probably no one has become better known, and indeed achieved more, than Manchester's famed songwriting duo of Mark Pennells and Zarc Porter. Together with Porter's masterly studio productions, Pennells' and Porter's pop, R&B and dance songs have blazed a trail for musical evangelism which have seen lots of album sales - two million plus at the last count - but even more importantly have been a vital ingredient in many thousands of young people responding to the Gospel message. Recently Mike Rimmer committed a whole Rimmerama programme to taking a long hike with the chosen two where Mark and Zarc offered thoughts and reminiscences about 20 of their recordings, from their first stumbling effort as Access in 1985 to their latest potential hit for BeBe Vox in 2010. Here is an edited version of what the veteran song smiths said during this radio marathon.
1. Access - There Will Be Dancing, Independent, 1985
Mark: On no! Please take it off! It's absolutely shocking!
Zarc: In the early days we had a band, but we ended up with just us two.
Mark: We did do a few schools and it was after that we started chatting to Andy Hawthorne. He used to speak at the end of our gigs and we saw that there was something there that really worked.
Zarc: We had what I think was the very first music computer which was called a Yamaha CX5, and it could only record one note at a time. You had to enter everything in step time by typing it in, telling it whether you wanted a crotchet or a quaver, and then enter all the rests, manually. This is why those recordings sound so robotic. It was really ancient technology, and we actually made the foolish decision to use it on stage live which proved to be scary because it kept crashing in the middle of gigs. So Mark would have to fill in for two minutes while we rebooted, bearing in mind we had to reboot it off data cassette. It took ages to reload it all up. That was back in the day, proper old school technology."
2. Except For Access - Made Perfect, Independent,
Mark: After we left Huddersfield Polly we moved to Manchester where I originally came from and we decided to carry on the band as a duo.
Zarc: Well we were trying to do this and make a living but we never made any money. I worked in a music shop selling instruments for a while.
Mark: We called ourselves Except For Access like the road sign. We had a photo taken where we stood under a road sign. It was in a local newspaper with a caption reading, 'I wonder where they got the name', all sarcastically. It was all a bit sad really, but you have to start somewhere. Then there was a proper Spinal Tap moment actually. We weren't really getting anywhere and it wasn't really happening so we thought 'let's change the name of the band'. We'd released a tape called 'Made Perfect'. So we switched it and said, 'Let's call the band Made Perfect, and the album 'Except For Access'.' It was a terrible idea, completely confused our market.
3. Mark Pennells - One Of These Days, Independent, 1990
Mark: Another Spinal Tap moment. 'One Of These Days' was really just the same lineup - me singing, Zarc providing the tracks - as Except For Access. I don't know why we called it a solo album! I decided that I'd go out on my own in the schools. That was really the beginning of Message To Schools. Andy would come and speak after I'd done my songs. Andy was at the church up the road from us. He went to a church called St Mary's Cheadle, we went to a church called St Andrews in Cheadle Hulme. The youth groups used to do stuff together, for a start.
4. The World Wide Message Tribe - Take A Long Hike
With The Chosen Few, Perfect Music, 1991
Zarc: I had a bit of an eye-opening moment when I saw that rave tracks at 140 BPM were really erupting at the time. We realised that as long as it had a decent hook in and you did this throbbing 4 to the floor rave, the kids just loved it, it was just a way of musically connecting with them. In a way we had to throw away our musicality, if you like, we had to say this isn't actually about the music, we've got to stop being precious about trying to write good melodies and good songs. It's more about the vibe of the tracks. That was quite an eye-opener really. Once we'd realised that and saw the results, the fact that it really worked well, we started this whole new approach to it. The song became secondary to the vibe of the track. We obviously had to write lyrics that had proper meaning and served a purpose, but we started doing things the other way round, more studio technology-based writing.
The way The World Wide Message Tribe started was Andy was coming to speak at the end of Mark's gigs, and he came to me in the studio one day and said he'd written a couple of raps which, looking back, were horrendously cheesy. But then we saw how brilliantly he was connecting with the kids when he spoke having done these raps. So we all thought, hang on, there's something about this, we need to integrate Andy into the band. So The World Wide Message Tribe formed as a result of that need, rather than we thought it would be a great idea to form a band. Thing is, back in the days of rave, you had all these Zig-a-Zag and Raga style raps coming out and the early Prodigy stuff was really in at the time. So his style of rapping actually fitted it really well, he sounded right for that rave thing at the time. But obviously he was also and is to this day an incredible speaker.
Andy had an idea for a name which was The Phenomenal World Wide Inter-Galactic Message Tribe or something like that. As with most of his ideas we trimmed it down and it ended up as The World Wide Message Tribe. We did this schools tape which had about eight tracks on it. That was in '91, very soon after 'One Of These Days'. It was done in around three weeks, a real quick job. Then we met up with a guy called Steve Nixon who was originally from round here. He knew Scott Blackwell, who was a Christian DJ working pioneering stuff in the States. Scott had just started this new record label N-Soul Records so ended up signing The Tribe. He re-issued the first album and put in some extra mixes and a couple of extra tracks and some instrumentals and that kind of stuff on it and that became the first CD release.
5. 65dBA - Shout, Integrity, 1994
Zarc: Ray Goudie at New Generation Ministries asked me down to Bristol to help them produce 65dBA's album. It was great working down there - they had infinitely better studio gear than I had at the time. One of the tracks I worked on with them was "Never Gonna Give You Up" which was a song that was originally on Mark's 'One Of These Days' tape. dBA did it in a very retro, vaudeville style which gave it a fresh character.
6. Various - Jumping In The House Of God, Movation, 1995
Mark: The 'Jumping In The House Of God' series came about as a result of us wanting to do something for the people who'd become Christians, at our events and the schools. We had all these new Christians and we didn't know what to do with them. So Andy and us two set up these services called Planet Life where we could do worship tracks that the kids could jump around to, but still worship God. That was the root of it really.
Zarc: There were a lot of kids who'd gone to a Tribe gig on a Friday night, got into this high energy, very ravey music, heard the message and made a commitment to Christ. Then when they got to church on a Sunday evening it was like they'd gone to Mars, it was just bizarre, the difference was so weird. So we were trying to do something that was just a bit more similar to what they'd seen on the Friday night but in church.
Mark: Someone made up the phrase 'alternative worship'. And I suppose that's what it was.
7. Various - Cross Rhythms, N-Soul, 1995
Zarc: We had a track on this compilation which Tony Cummings put together for Scott Blackwell's N-Soul Records. It was a demo we'd recorded with a girl duo called Soul Freedom. Amazingly that song "I Believe In You" became the first time a song we'd worked on got played on BBC Radio One when Janey Lee Grace did a documentary on contemporary Christian music for the Beeb.
8. Various - Jumping In The House Of God II, Movation, 1996
Zarc: I suppose the song "Jumping In The House Of God" by HOG Vs The World Wide Message Tribe is still one of our best known tracks. HOG were around in the '90s doing hip-hop stuff in Leeds. Their Justin Thomas is a great lyric writer. We'd already done the first album and he came over to the studio and we'd said it would be great to have a track that was actually called "Jumping In The House Of God." He'd wrote these verses which were brilliant lyrically and we basically took the words from him and just chopped it all up on the computer and made a track around it. It was a very quick process, I remember it was all done in around 20 minutes or something. I remember thinking it was all very rough and ready, but then when we started doing it live it just kicked off.
9. Raze - I Need Your Love, Movation, 1997
Zarc: I'd gone with the Tribe on what I think was their second US tour. We went to a festival called Fishnet Festival. Raze were playing there, or at least an early incarnation of Raze who were still un-signed. I saw Ja'Marc had this incredible rapport with the crowd, this incredible energy. You know, the hairs on the back of my head went up and I thought, we've got to get these guys back to the UK. So I spoke to our record company at the time, which was Alliance, Dave Bruce, and I said, "Mate you know, we've got to get these guys over," and he fortunately agreed to fly them over. We did about three or four days in the studio and came up with a four track single "I Need Your Love". Raze were phenomenal performers, absolutely phenomenal. They came and did some support gigs for The Tribe in Wythenshawe, at one of the schools weeks, and it just blew everyone away, you know, they were absolutely astonishing on stage.
There was a girl singing lead on "I Need Your Love" called Michelle and then she left for whatever reason, I don't know why. Then Donny joined Raze and they came over again. Actually Donny's mum Deronda later joined The Tribe. There is a funny thing that happened on the single. There was a track called "Brighter Day" a song that we've used more recently, for tbc. The Raze version had a rap in the middle of it, which Ja'Marc did. It was in the early days of doing audio recording on the computer, and the disc got corrupt. We actually lost the rap and Ja'Marc had already flown back to the States. So I ended up getting him to do the rap over the phone! We couldn't do it in time to the track, of course because of the time delay, so we did it like a bar at a time then put it all back together. So on the single, you'll hear the rap is actually on the phone, it's really crackly.
Mark: A lot of people will remember that Ja'Marc got into some real trouble with the law in the States, but we spent quite a lot of time working with him, for ages, and we did a lot of good stuff with him before that happened. We've got very fond memories of him, and it's very sad that it ended up the way it did.
10. Various - Jumping In The House Of God III, Movation, 1998
Zarc: One of the popular tracks on that was "Thank You For The Rain" by HOG's Justin Thomas. The chords were actually taken from a piece of classical music, "Air On A G String" - one of those obvious classics. We were originally going to record the song with the African Children's Choir which actually never happened for practical reasons, because we couldn't get the dates organised. But Mark came up with the title, "Thank You For The Rain". And then Justin wrote this autobiographical rap for the verses which we put together with the chorus."
11. Shine - Extended Play, Alliance, 1999
Mark: We had a girl group called Shine who were doing some support gigs with The World Wide Message Tribe. Loretta was a member of that group. When we wanted to do a schools project in Milton Keynes we kept the name Shine because we liked it and Loretta and her sister Natasha joined the new group. I'd just left The World Wide Message Tribe and gone freelance and was then working in Milton Keynes to develop Shine. Then, once we'd done a few tracks, I went off to the States and we got this ridiculous response from the demo! We had three record labels and a publishing company from Nashville come and see our little performance in St Andrew's Church in Cheadle Hulme!
Zarc: So we ended up producing and writing with them, and Mark helped to manage and steer them really.
12. V*enna - Where I Wanna Be, Movation, 2000
Mark: We have good memories of that album and working with those two, they were great girls to work with, great singers. I can remember the sessions when we were writing that. Some of it was done a bit Britney Spears, wasn't it, and we enjoyed writing that. I think just the whole sound, a bit like the Max Martin (producer of Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC) sound, you know, which was very current at the time, I always felt that album should have done more, but with a British and an American girl there were problems about where they should be based.
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